Story: Kang Tae-shik (Choi Min-sik) is a former Olympia boxing-silver medal winner, but his glorious days
are long gone already. Now, he is chased after by debt collectors, and his wife doesn't respect him anymore because she
and her son have to suffer the consequences of his poverty, which Tae-shik desperately struggles with, trying his
utmost to overcome it, even going on the streets and getting beaten by paying customers in a box match.
But, someday Tae-shik sees an opportunity to win back his lost pride and he submits for an important boxing competition,
hoping that this could mean his comeback.
Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryu Seung-beom) is a small-time crook, who to his father's sorrow gads about on the streets and can't control his potential of anger. This leads to a robberry assault, which goes terribly wrong, eventually. Sang-hwan ends up in jail and can't seem to escape the vortex of violence there either. However, one of the guards gets him into a boxing program where Sang-hwan is supposed to get his drive for violence under control. In order to earn back the respect of his family and his self-respect he decides to participate in the same boxing competition as Tae-shik...
Review: Boxing films never could win me over. Boxing dramas on the other hand, that focus more on the characters
and their lives might have better chances, and when the director is also Ryu Seung-wan ("Arahan", "Die Bad")
expectations go up for me, too. However, "Crying Fist" couldn't convince me to be the masterpiece many critics
laudate it to be. This may be because of the sport itself, which simply doesn't have the esthetics that I find so
fascinating in martial arts movies, or the fact that the movie plainly has too many obvious flaws. Flaws that other
critics could make out, too, yet apparently managed to overlook them with ease. Well, I can't just do that, because
despite some finesse narrational-wise, which is mainly founded in the fact that the movie illuminates the lives of
two different individuals, which apart from their love for boxing aren't linked by anything else, this very fact also stands
as the main problem of the drama, as we get the feeling that simply two different stories are presented, of which one
will most likely appeal more interesting to viewers than the other.
The story around Tae-shik is told quietly and is tranquil in its core. Choi Min-sik ("Oldboy", "Failan") once again delivers an impressive performance and plays a character, which we can't simply understand to be the good "hero" of the story, as he is way too human for that. In fact, at first we don't even know, if we might actually get emotionally attracted to him. But working with this very detail he manages to win over the audience's sympathy in a very natural manner, that is a sympathy which eventually feels a lot more honest and is more effective than the one we would feel if he would had been drawn simply as a nice individual. Tae-shik has his flaws and has to struggle with a harsh life. But he tries to make the best out of his predicament and tries to hold together his family, which isn't easy all of the time, since his wife, behind his back, is looking for someone who can actually give her and her son financial safety. Still, the way Tae-shik tries to save his family gets him the viewer's antipathy at first, since despite his pitiable situation he nonetheless tries to retain a certain kind of pride, which might have another effect on his wife and the people surrounding him, as it seems that he isn't treating them appropriately. Therefore, the viewer develops an ambivalent view on him, which, as already said, changes into a more positive one throughout the film, though.
The story in opposition to that revolves around small-time crook Sang-hwan, who gets into more and more trouble, and who doesn't care for any of the good advice his father tries to help him with, until one day Sang-hwan makes a fatal mistake and gets into prison. Ryu Seung-beom, the brother of the director, actually manages to carry his part as well as Choi Min-sik. A truely astonishing effort, which earns him the deserved praise of many critics. Sang-hwan's story is also the more energetic of the two story threads, which also leads to the inconvenience that "Crying Fist" has some big pacing problems. Because of the differing pacing of the two stories some parts of the movie feel a bit too stretched and unnecessarily so. Moreover, the two plots have to wide of a gap between them, so that it proves difficult at times to mentally switch between them just like that when the movie changes its perspective.
It takes a while until it finally comes to a boxing match. Fortunately, they are captured quite untypical compared to what we are used to see from Hollywood productions. Many of the fights, of which one certain one is especially memorable, are captured without one single cut, so that the punches feel extremely realistic, simply because of the fact that the actors actually did go for it and hurt each other. This creates a certain kind of on-screen energy and feels honest as we also get to see the physical exhaustion of the combatants during the fights. Sadly, there are some special effects finding their way into the movie, later on, certain kinds of shooting techniques that seems unnecessarily mainstream-like.
We already know of Choi Min-sik's boxing skills since "Oldboy", but Ryu Seung-beom, too, proves to be pretty talented, whereas latter one fights with more rage and emotions. Choi and Ryu therefore seem to be equal opponents, but during the finale it still becomes pretty clear that one of them is better. Interestingly enough, in the judges' opinion that's not the one who is the winner! I still don't get that and it remains something that leaves a bitter aftertaste for me...
Boxing as a means to regain one's pride, or to get back one's self-esteem I should say, isn't really something that we haven't seen as a movie theme already. However, what Ryu Seung-wan manages really well is not to make the audience root for a certain protagonist as it is typical for sports films, but instead focuses on putting two realistic characters in the foreground, so that eventually you start to ask yourself who to cheer for. It's also pretty obvious that only one of the two can be the winner, the other one having to cope with the fact that he messed up this opportunity, too. Therefore, you shouldn't expect a real happy ending, as there inevitably remains something bitter for the viewer in the end. Still, there have to be shared some few words of criticism on the ending as well, since everything seems a bit too emotionally forced.
The reason what critics praise "Crying Fist" for is the acting achievements and an interesting way of storytelling. At the same time this method of storytelling also proves to be a problem, which together with the uneven pacing leads to some serious flaws, which still doesn't change the fact that "Crying Fist" is somewhat of a good movie, but only barely so...